Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Story Analysis 101 Pt. 3 - Once Upon a Time

[This is part 3 of an four part essay introducing techniques of story analysis using the episode "Gnothi Seauton" from the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If you haven't read the first two parts, you can find part 1 here and part 2 here.]

After pulling apart the thematic and character elements of this episode, we can finally get down to the nitty-gritty of examining the story itself. As we discussed previously, the particular theme for this episode appears to be Identity. That is, those qualities that make us definable and recognizable. So there are two storylines running through this episode. The first consists of the action, drama, gunplay and fights that you expect in this series. The other consists of characters asking (as well as answering) both the question "Who are you?" and the more important question "Who am I?".
We begin with a voice-over from Sarah:
A wise man once said "know thyself." Easier said than done. I've had 9 aliases, 23 jobs, spoken 4 languages and spent 3 years in a mental hospital for speaking the truth. At least when I was there, I could use my real name. Through it all, I've always known who I am and why I'm here....Maybe if you spend your life hiding who you are, you might finally end up fooling yourself.
The use of voice-over as a framing device is used well in this series and in this episode in particular. Sarah has been on the run from both SkyNet and the FBI before she even reached her twentieth birthday. She describes the different ways we identify ourselves and others -- by name (9 aliases), by what we do (23 jobs) and culturally (4 languages). The only time she was what she thinks of as herself, she was locked up in a mental hospital. She knows that she can't let anyone know who she really is, but she's clearly uncomfortable with this situation.
She later encounters John and he complains that Sarah has been avoiding getting new I.D.s for the last three days and as a consequence he's been stuck indoors.
Sarah: It's not just a name. It's a legend. A life. A whole new you.
John: We go through this every time.
Sarah: This is different.
Cameron: New IDs today? It's been three days.
John: I want my new name. I want that whole new me.
There are a couple of elements in play here. The first is that we have both John and Cameron mention the passing of three days since they arrived in our present/their future. To my suspicious mind, mentioning this kind of thing once is casual conversation but more than that indicates that the writer wants us to pay attention to this. The most obvious interpretation brings us back to the John/Jesus connection. In Matthew 12:38, Christ is described as rising three days after death and here we have "John Connor" (as an identity) dying (time-traveling from 1999) so that John (Sarah's son and the future leader of mankind) can live on. This may be a bit of a stretch but the series overall has included many Biblical and other religious references so it's not beyond imagination that this is also the case here.That being said, I don't think it's an important plot point.
So we return to our theme of identity. Both Sarah and John refer to the new I.D.s as more than just pieces of paper, but as whole new lives. Sarah calls it a 'legend' and this word has multiple meanings, at least two of which apply here. Legend can mean a story from the past about a specific person and it also means the phony background given to a spy taking on another identity. The series pilot changed the primary storyline from a chase to a hunt and transformed the Connors from victims to hunters, spies and detectives and this particular dialogue underscores this change, with Sarah noting that things are different now, i.e. they have new roles to play.
Sarah wants to see Enrique, a friend from her gun-running days, to get their new identities, but Cameron tells her that John (future John) sent back resistance fighters to act as a support team. When they arrive at the run-down tenement building to see these men, Sarah has another question for Cameron.
Sarah: These resistance fighters, they know you?
Cameron: They've seen me before.
Of course, Sarah is asking if they know Cameron as a cyborg but Cameron seems to be dodging the question. However, one constant from the movies and this series is that terminators will tell the literal truth, as long as it doesn't interfere with their mission. So while it seems that Cameron is being evasive, I think she is being literal. She really doesn't know whether these soldiers are aware that she's a robot and more importantly, whether they do or not is irrelevant. Cameron is the one character in this story who knows exactly who she is and is completely aware that any other self she presents to the world is a false face. Despite her outward appearance she doesn't even have gender. Switching identities is part of her function as she is programmed to be an infiltrator, to be whoever and whatever she needs to be to complete her mission. In the sense that we humans present different aspects of ourselves to others, depending on the context (I'm a different person to my co-workers than I am to my spouse, for example), we are all infiltrators.
The fighters are found murdered, however, so the two need to contact Enrique after all. He greets them and tells them that he has a new life, a new identity. He refers to himself as El Finito, after the nickname of a boxer who retired with no losses. Enrique has retired after a life spent being free, never once imprisoned or captured. Remember this, we'll come back to it.
Enrique refers them to Carlos, his nephew, who has taken on the family business. The two visit Carlos and while Sarah is negotiating, Cameron is outside waiting with the young girl who acts as the gang's lookout. At this point we're treated to an amusing scene where Cameron begins to imitate the body language and posture of the girl (who is simply listed as Chola in the credits and who is played wonderfully by Sabrina Perez). Cameron doesn't have her new identity yet so we see her trying on that of Chola as if she was trying on a new outfit.
However, it isn't long until she gets into trouble. A police car pulls up and a patrolman gets out.
Cop: (to Chola) Hey, baby girl. What did I tell you about hanging around? (he sees Cameron) Who's your new friend here? She someone I need to know? 'Cause the longer you stand around, the more I think she's someone I need to know. (to Cameron) You got a name?
Cameron: No.
Cop: This your car?
Cameron: No. It's definitely not my car.
Cop: See, I know just about everyone in this neighborhood, and you are not one of those everyone. Now you got me wondering not just who you are, that you won't say, but why you're here. And that you won't say.
Once again, Cameron is telling the literal truth. She has no new identity or name (yet) and since they arrived in a stolen car, it was literally not her car. She is about to be arrested when Sarah swoops in and makes up a story about Cameron being her step-daughter 'Jennifer' and in trouble for hanging out with her no-good boyfriend (or as Sarah refers to him, "that punk-ass") and just generally kicking up enough fuss so that the police officer backs off and lets them go. So we see that having an identity, even a false one, is better than having none. Inside we all know who we are and what we're about but to function in a society we need to present an external identity, for others to use in relating to us. The Connors are currently disconnected from society, functionally non-persons, until they establish their new selves.
After the encounter with the police, Sarah and Cameron are walking home and Sarah begins another discussion.
Sarah: Aren't you supposed to take orders or something like that?
Cameron: I do. From John.
Sarah: From John. So if I tell John to forbid you...
Cameron: Not this John.
Sarah: Not this John. Aren't they the same?
Cameron: Not yet.
So we are introduced into another notation of identity in a world that includes time travel. Cameron distinguishes the current John Connor from the John Connor of her (future) time, despite the fact that the two Johns are identical in every way except life experience. In addition, her reply indicates that Current!John is gradually transforming into Future!John. So just as our clothes, our name, our culture and our genetics determine our identity, so do all of our life experiences. Every decision we make, every person we meet, everything we do becomes another part of the persons we are at any given moment.
But Carlos wants a lot of money for the new papers, money that the Connors don't have. This leads us to another voice-over from Sarah, this time while she's walking down the street, thinking.
Carlos was right. $20,000 wasn't that much money. A new identity, a new life, a chance. You can't put a price on that.But unlike John, I was never eager for that new life to begin. I liked having no name, no story. It was the only time I got to be me. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to pay for that. And the price was getting higher every day.
This underscores Sarah's previous comment where the only good thing about being in a mental hospital is that she could use her real name -- she could be herself. Unfortunately the only way she sees clear to being herself now is to have no name, no identity, to hang on to the self within. Right now she is at peace because nobody knows or cares who she is. She is disconnected from everyone else. Once she gets a new name, she has to re-connect.
Once she gets her new papers from Carlos, she hears him talking to his gang about Enrique, using the Spanish word for rat, slang for 'informer' or 'snitch'. She returns to Enrique and confronts him with this. So the self that Enrique presented to Sarah was false. He had spent some time in prison and had become an informant. The man who spent a lifetime creating false identities for others took on one for himself. While he is trying to plead for his life, drawing on the past relationship he had with Sarah, trying to convince her that he's still the man she knew, Cameron enters and shoots him dead.
Sarah: Why would you do this? Did you hear what he said? We don't know. We don't know.
Cameron: He was possibly lying.
Sarah: Possibly? You just executed him on possibly? He had a family! Why would you do this?
Cameron: Cause you wouldn't.
Sarah: How do you know what I would and would not do? You don't know me. You don't know me! And you don't know my son. Not John. Not my John. You don't know what I would and wouldn't do. I don't even know what I would and wouldn't do. I wake up this morning and you tell me... I don't know anything anymore. I don't even remember what my name is.
Cameron: Sarah Connor.
In one sense, Cameron is being literal. In another sense, she is indicating that 'Sarah Connor' is also who Sarah is -- Mother of the Savior, the Legend. It's because her name is Sarah Connor that SkyNet tried to kill her in the first film (literally, as the terminator was killing all of the Sarah Connors listed in the phone book, in order) and it's what starts her on the road to giving birth to John and thereby saving future humanity by proxy. She has been confronted by visitors from the future who tell her that she will do this and will be that, but to her this Sarah Connor to which they are referring is another person, a stranger. The "Sarah Connor, Mother of the Savior" is an identity, a self that has been forced upon her by others. Unfortunately it's also not a self that she can reject.
This brings us to Sarah's final two monologues for this episode, which sum up the theme of this story. The first:
Know thyself. John once told me it's inscribed on the front of the Temple of Apollo. The entire quote is, "know thyself and thou shall know all the mysteries of the gods and of the universe."
That's quite a mouthful. My version is this. Know thyself because what else is there to know? People hide secrets. Time is a lie. The material world can disappear in an instant. It has and it will again.
You can't know what's in others hearts, only in your own. What Sarah thought of as her life, her world, has vanished many times -- when Kyle Reese appeared in a bubble of electrical force, when she was committed to a mental hospital, when she and her young son destroyed Cyberdyne Systems, when a bank vault exploded in 1999. A robot with a stolen face has told Sarah that she died of cancer two years ago and that the world will end in atomic fire in April of 2011. Time is an illusion. Everything that is happening, is happening now, in this instant.
Our identities change. Our names, the way we look, how we act and speak. We're shape shifters. There is no control. No constant. No shelter but the love of family and the body God gave us. And we can only hope that that will always be enough.
The philosopher Rene Descartes proposed that we can argue that everything is just an illusion: the world, other people, our bodies, everything. The only thing one can truly know for sure is that they exist. Buddhists view the world as an illusion in order to detach themselves from it. In addition, the lines about "no control" and "no constant" is reminiscent of William Butler Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming', which talks about the inevitability of Apocalypse, the end of the world. This re-connects our theme of identity back to the primary story element of the series, stopping the end of the world.

That's what I've got. There will be one final section to this essay, where I'll sum up just what went into this process.

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